"United we bargain, divided we beg."

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Piles of Pears!

Help! All the pears ripened at once! We have about seventy-five perfectly ripe, delicious pears! My dehydrator is full of pear slices, my oven is full of pear slices (at 170 degrees, it works just like a dehydrator), I made pear-ginger loaf for dessert tonight, and we are all sick to death of eating them out of hand. I'm trying to push some of them into the trade network, but it has to happen FAST. A pear goes from perfect to past-perfect in no time flat. 

Next year we will be smarter; we will pick them five at a time off the tree.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Local Beef

My neighbors across the street have been raising beef cattle for nearly fifty years. These lovely polled Herefords enjoy unlimited pasture, the freedom to raise their own calves, run and wander at will, and generally live a pretty natural and happy life for a cow, right up until the end. They are completely grass raised and grass finished, never grain fattened or sent to a feedlot. When the time comes, the knackerman comes and collects them right off the field. 

Choosing one of these animals to be our meat for the year (along with our own pork, chicken, and kid) fulfills several goals. I couldn't possibly eat more locally; I've been looking at these cows out my window all year. I get to support two local family owned businesses: my neighbor's, and Keizer meats, the slaughterer and butcher. There is a great feeling of security in having a whole winter's worth of food in the house. I know for a fact that the animal I am going to eat has been humanely raised. And I get to refrain from participation in the feedlot system that is so incredibly detrimental to the environment, as well as being horrifically cruel to the animals involved.

And for those who say "All very well, but isn't it more expensive?", be informed that I am paying $2.25 a pound for my side of beef, which includes plenty of  filet mignon and prime rib as well as hamburger and stew meat. My steer was picked up for slaughter Saturday, and I ought be able to collect it in about two weeks. I can't wait. Every time I look out the window, I practically drool.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Local Food Trade Network Success Story!

All year long, I've been trying to source as much food as possible from within the county. I go to farmer's markets, and search for "locally grown" labels on produce at the supermarket, and of course our farm produces all the eggs and milk products we need. More, in fact. So much more that I instituted the trade system! Since about May, I've been trading our excess eggs for organic produce from local gardeners, and occasionally for such treats as homemade marshmallows (Thanks, Phil!).  I think this has been a good deal for everyone involved, even if there was occasionally more kale in the fridge than any one family could reasonably eat. 

But not until yesterday did the trade system really score a big bonanza. A friend who pressed cider with us last year called to say she had 13 pounds of fresh chantrelles, which she picked herself just the day before. Well much as I love mushrooms, and I do, 13 pounds is a bit much. But we got one brown paper bag full to the top, maybe three pounds, in exchange for a pound of chevre, a dozen eggs, and a package of bacon from our hog. As you can see, they are beautiful! Just setting them on the counter perfumes the whole kitchen with a lovely light, spicy, woodsy scent. I couldn't wait, and had a mushroom breakfast this morning.

Chantrelle Breakfast Burrito:

Heat up a large cast iron skillet with just a tiny smear of olive oil, almost dry. Roughly chop a big handful of fresh, clean chantrelles and dry-fry over pretty high heat. They will give off a lot of moisture. Just keep turning them while this moisture boils off. When they are starting to look a little dryer, maybe ten minutes, add a tablespoon or so of finely minced onion, salt and pepper. In a separate pan, melt a tablespoon of butter over medium low heat. Add two lightly beaten eggs. If you have some you gathered the same morning, so much the better. When eggs begin to set around the edges, add mushrooms and a tablespoon or so of grated asiago or pecorino romano cheese and some finely chopped parsley. There is a high mushroom to egg ratio here; the eggs and cheese are sort of a binder to hold a bunch of chantrelles together.Do not overcook! Eggs should be soft. Right on the burner or in a dry skillet, heat a flour tortilla until browned in spots, about 15 seconds each side. Put tortilla on plate and eggs on tortilla!

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Pear Problem Solved, and Cidering in the Rain

Well, that took all of three minutes. 

I should have done my google search before I wrote the last post and revealed myself as a fruit ignoramus. Pears, apparently, do not really ripen on the tree at all, and ONLY ripen after picking. I just have to wait. If I am impatient (what do you think, kids?) I can put them in a paper bag with a ripe banana.

Meanwhile, I have lots of nice apple cider to drink. A family with four kids came out today with fully a bushel of apples and we pressed for two hours, even though the rain was varying in intensity between drizzle and downpour. The cider is probably slightly dilute, but man is it delicious. I guess the apples are finally ripening up. I've been so impatient for cider that I've been using apples that aren't totally ready, with predictably disappointing results. But this cider - mostly Gravenstein, I think - is great. I'm going to heat some up with cinnamon and cloves and see if it doesn't help the nasty head cold I'm developing from standing around in the cold rain like an idiot.

Pears Aplenty

Early this past spring, I hired a guy to come out and see what he could do with the lovely antique pear tree that shades the garage. Last summer, it had produced only about a dozen little, gnarled pears, and I wondered if it might be made to do better. The man said it was in fine shape, and ought to bear many more pears after a good pruning. Then he basically shaved the poor tree and left it bare naked. I thought he'd killed it, but he was right.

I've been watching the pears get bigger all summer, happy to see that there are indeed many, many more of them. This past week I thought they were looking pretty full sized, so I went over to investigate and saw, to my surprise, that they were already falling off the tree of their own accord. So I picked all of them that I could reach. I don't know, technically, how much a bushel is, but I bet it's not twice as many.

I don't understand these pears. They are big, bigger than most grocery store pears, but they are all hard as rocks. You can bite into them, barely, but the flesh is dry and crumbly, not nice at all. I poured them into a drawer for storage, and they made clinking sounds, I kid you not, as they tumbled together. I don't have the vaguest notion what to do with them. I need to look in a book and see if pears ripen off the tree or not. Maybe I could boil them and can them in syrup? 

Maybe I could buy a slingshot and keep them by the bed as personal protection.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Pony Love

Silly me, I thought I was getting a pony for my kids. I'm sure my mother, the psychologist, could have told me otherwise. In actual fact, I was putting the finishing touch on my recreation of the happiest aspect of my childhood. Hey, most people helplessly recreate the worst aspects, right? I'm ahead of the game.

After I dropped the children off at school this morning, I rushed back to spend time with Rosie. Mostly I just sat on a bucket in the stall with her, patting her shoulder and her neck, whispering baby-talk-like nonsense, and enjoying a lot of wonderful memories of Bonnie Pony, the gorgeous red-gold palomino shetland-welsh cross I grew up with. I remembered lying down with her in the big field in summer, my back against the warm bulk of her ribs, reading a book. I remembered leaning on the fence at her favorite place under the tree and scratching her back. Trying to barrel-race. Trying to jump. Walking her down to the bottom of the hill, then turning her around and galloping back up as fast as we could go. The time  we were cantering across the field and I saw a garter snake, and just threw myself off her back onto the ground to catch it (my brother and I had a running contest that summer). Getting bucked off, over and over again, until I could land on my feet with the reins in my hands. Crying and crying when we moved and had to give her away. I know I was too big for her by then, but it was still so hard. 

Okay, I had to take a minute there.  I really miss that horse, even now. I wish I had a picture of her, she was so beautiful. Really, much prettier than Rosie, who is a very ordinary little pony. But that doesn't matter. She can still become a little girl's best friend.

Hello, Rosie!

Some people have suggested - people in my own family! - that I might have a little bit of a problem.  An animal addiction. I'm a junky, it's been suggested, scrutinizing craigslist long into the night, neglecting my children, letting dinner burn on the stove while I hunt frantically for more goats, more alpacas, more chickens, more more more! 

I told these people they were out of their tiny little minds, that they simply couldn't appreciate the beauty of a small agricultural enterprise, and that they sure liked to slurp up the eggs that MY too numerous chickens were popping out, so why don't they go away and leave me to the cool blue glow of my computer screen?

Well, the scales have been lifted from my eyes. Yes, I have officially gone too far. Meet Rosie, an 8 year old shetland pony. Isn't she adorable? Isn't she just perfect? Okay, I know I've said this before, but I really, really am done now. The farm is complete.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Blackberry Season Cut Short

One day late last week, I picked a big bowlful of blackberries. I felt a sense of urgency; rain was in the forecast, and I knew that this late in the season, a good hard rain will mean the end of the season. Any berries left on the vine will mold, if they are ripe, or never ripen, if they are green. And the early berry season was annihilated  by an unseasonable downpour in July. I haven't had the chance to eat my fill of blackberries this year. So I really got in there, I pushed and stomped and carried some clippers with me to get right in the middle of some good bushes. Got enough for a pie, and to freeze a few, too. Got good and scratched up. You haven't really been berry picking unless you bleed. Then I set the bowl down on the ground and the goats knocked it over and trampled them. 

                                                          Volunteer Sunflower

The rain began this morning. It was time; it was past time. My fruit trees needed water (I have yet to work out a good watering system for the orchard. The hose doesn't reach and we have to water with buckets, which means we don't water often enough.). We haven't had measurable rain at all in September. Rain is inevitable; you have to make your peace with it or move away. But I'm just not ready this year. Spring was so long, so wet, and so cold. It was so dark and damp.  I feel like there was barely enough summer to dry out, not enough warmth and light to sustain us through a long winter. I want an Indian Summer. Please, is anybody listening?

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Two Girls on a Gate

      Hope and Paloma test out the gate of the alpaca catch pen.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Haying and Playing: part two

Today was a hard-work day, but a really good one. I found some good, cheap hay on Craigslist and had it delivered, and the first order of business was getting 20 sixty-pound bales of hay up into the hayloft. That left us pretty tired for a while. Homero was thoroughly coated in hay particles glued all over him with sweat. He looked like a cake with coconut frosting. 

Then I discovered that we had a fair amount of fence repair to do. There is a section of fence that runs alongside a wall of blackberries, and the goats have been mashing it down to get at them. I suspect Xana: she's the worst fence jumper. Plus I hate her. We had to drive six new stakes and try to pull the mashed fence back up and affix it to the stakes. Hard work in the heat of the afternoon. But we recuperated after a cold beer and spent the evening paying with the animals.

Homero let the pig out for the first time. When he picked it up to put it over the fence, it screamed like you would not believe! Oddly, the alpacas hated the very sight of the pig, or seemed to, and chased him around the barnyard aggressively, kicking and making weird alpaca noises. I don't know if they just never noticed him before behind his fence, or if they thought he was an intruder or what, but we had to put him back in his pen or he would have got his little pink ass kicked. 

Homero has been teaching the goats tricks. The trick they are best at is standing up on their hind legs and walking; and shaking hands, which means pawing at your knees with their sharp hooves. We all wish he hadn't taught them that trick. Sometimes the goats get a little over enthusiastic. 

A day like this makes me really happy. Not that nothing bad happened; I picked a whole bowl of blackberries, getting quite scratched up in the process and then the goats knocked them over on the ground. I burned some food. The toilet overflowed. But that's life, you mop it up. 

Monday, September 15, 2008

The Littlest Billy Goat Gruff

Buddy is a purebred Boer, which is a meat goat. I have only two goats to breed this year: Xana, my big mean ugly LaMancha, and Flopsy, the girl-twin out of Iris, a purebred Nubian from excellent lines. Flopsy won't be ready to breed until December (she's too young, still) but Xana is ready now. 

Xana is my least favorite goat. She is fat, mean, and ugly. She butts the other goats and bosses them around, she jumps over every fence we own, even electric ones, and she is very hard to catch. She's not friendly, and I don't really want any more like her. That's why I decided to breed her to a Boer. Her babies will be meat, and I'll get the milk.

I know, I'm awful. But this is a farm, after all, and there are some hard realities to confront. One of them is, all baby goats are cute, but they don't all grow up into goats you want to keep. 

But the point may be moot. This buck we are leasing turned out to be a baby. They say he is nine months old, but I don't believe it. He's even smaller than Nutmeg and Flopsy, who are only five months old. And he's terrified of Xana. The first time he dared to try to sniff her nether regions, she turned on him and butted him all across the field. Bitch. 

I'm pretty sure she is in heat; she's more aggressive than usual and she has a puffy vulva and discharge. But she's not interested in any puny little baby billy. Maybe I need a cabron sazonado, a real rutting buck. (Ooh, out of context, that sounds bad.) 

Or maybe I should forget about little baby meat goats and just turn 150 pounds of nasty nanny into meat right now.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Apple Overload

   Apples and equipment are sterilized in a very dilute bleach-water bath

   Hot day + hard work + cider and pulp everywhere = sweat + wasps

Everyone wants to use the cider press! I have appointments lined up all week. Today a family with four kids is coming over, and the dad says he has two 55 gallon drums full of apples. A guy came over last week with a whole bunch of windfalls which he pressed to make ethanol for his Prius. (Don't worry, I carefully disinfected the press afterwards.) And I have about 150 pounds of apples in the shed, still.

My problem is that I don't have any containers for juice. Last year we saved all our gallon milk jugs and used them for juice storage, but this year I haven't bought any milk at all since April. I have my 6 gallon carboy, of course, but my first batch of hard cider is just about ready to decant into the carboy for the secondary fermentation, so I can't use it. I guess I could use the 6 gallon plastic bucket that is currently holding the hard cider, if I decanted it right now, but I would have no way to refrigerate it, and without refrigeration, it turns into vinegar in about two days. 

I guess I'll just have to use the big jars that I use for milking, and figure out how to get more jars quick!

Friday, September 12, 2008

Holy Tomatoes!

With the beautiful sunny weather of the last week and a half, all the tomatoes that I thought were going to rot on the vine have been ripening. This is only one day's harvest; there are many more out there now waiting to be gathered. I'm not sure what I'm going to do with them. I'm tired of canning (and out of canning jars) so maybe I'll make various types of tomato sauce and freeze them in gallon ziploc freezer bags. 

Thursday, September 11, 2008


I'm typing this with one hand, because the other is totally broken. Well, probably not really, but it feels like it. Coming out of the small barn this evening with a container full of food for the pig, a goat (didn't see which one) jumped up on the door and slammed it on my thumb. Tore all the skin off the top and it instantly swelled to twice normal size. I howled like a banshee.

It's now two hours later and I've taken four ibuprofen and kept it soaking in ice water, but I still can't bend it and it still hurts almost as much as it did at first. If Homero were here I might go get an x-ray, but he's spending the night in Seattle at work. Can't leave the kids. I think a strong snort of bourbon might be the only treatment available tonight. 

It's been quite a while since I hurt myself, so I can't complain. The last time was way back last winter when I fell off the ladder. Oh well, and I put a staple in the palm of my hand last week when I was trying to staple up bird netting to keep the chickens out of the loft, but that hardly counts, that's just plain ordinary stupidity.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Off-the-Grid Energy

I don't want to give the impression that I'm the only one playing the self-sufficency game around here: Homero has his own project that has nothing to do with farming but which will eventually contribute tremendously to our independence. It's biodiesel. So far, his project consists mostly of collecting vast amounts of waste vegetable oil from various mom-and-pop restaurants and storing them in my art studio. (See Leda behind the boxes? The swan has flown south and left her with a bunch of eggs.) Each of the boxes in the picture below holds 10 gallons, and I think there are eight boxes. 

Oh, and trips to Home Depot. Many many trips to Home Depot.  This get-up below is the actual biodiesel maker... it's an old water heater with a lot of tubes coming out, as you can see. The veggie oil needs to be heated to 130 degrees. Somewhere, there must be inputs for the chemical additives, which are methanol and potassium hydroxide. These inputs are the hold-up. Methanol can be bought in 55 gallon drums from a race car supply shop in Burlington (what do race car drivers use it for? I don't know. ), but it's very expensive. And potassium hydroxide is hard to find. Homero has been trying to find it locally for about a month, and can't. He could use sodium hydroxide (lye), but I guess it isn't quite as good. Nor is it easy to find, the days when drug stores sold Red Devil lye in the laundry section being long gone. I remember when I made soap from scratch years ago, I had to beg a little lye from my college chemistry teacher. Also, we've been told that buying potassium hydroxide in bulk puts you on a terrorist watch list; who knows if that's true?

There is a local farmer here who makes biodiesel in very large, 400 gallon batches, and we have been trying to get in touch with him to ask where he gets his inputs or if we maybe could buy from him since we only need small amounts. Homero's set up will supposedly make 40 gallon batches. There must be more to it than you can see in the picture, because there are also filters - several filters, ranging from 10 microns down to 2 microns, which is smaller than most people filter but Homero wants to be safe. Also, where does it come out? Pure glycerin is a by-product, and it has to precipitate out somewhere... well, as you can tell by now, I don't know squat about biodiesel, except that my car will run on it. Supposedly, if our waste oil is free, the biodiesel will cost about $1.50 a gallon to produce, not counting the start up costs. Homero tells me that he has spent only about $300 so far, but I have my doubts. I know how many trips to Home Depot he's made.

But there is one area that the biodiesel could pay for itself very quickly, and that's home heating. Currently we use propane, which is close to $3 a gallon today and which will certainly go up as winter approaches. Switching to biodiesel would necessitate buying a diesel furnace, but I've seen used ones on Craigslist pretty cheap. We'd really be taking a major step toward independence if we could supply our own heat. What would be left, really, except electricity?

We've got great wind here. New goal: windmill in three years!

Friday, September 5, 2008

More Chicks Than You Can Shake a Stick At

Last week, I climbed into the hayloft with a roll of bird netting and a staple gun, with the intention of saving our hay from marauding chickens, who like to fly up there - the ones that can fly - and lay their eggs. Seemed like a simple enough project, but I guess I put a staple in my hand for nothing, because today I found black mama up there sitting on a clutch of eggs. Since I have no way of knowing how long she has been sitting on them, and since I have no wish to break open eggs with bloody half-formed chicks in them, I'm just gonna have to let her hatch them out. This will be the fourth clutch this year, but each of the previous clutches averaged only two chicks each, so I guess we have room for a couple more. 

Hope they don't fall off the edge of the loft and die before I can get them down safely. Stupid chickens, I swear.

Pistols and Predators

Homero told me a story which I just have to put on the blog.

The other evening, Homero was out with the animals giving them their evening feeding. It was the end of a beautiful day, and the sun was just going down. Suddenly, he saw a man climb over the fence from the west, where there is nothing but hundreds of acres of pasture and woods. He was staring into the sun, so he couldn't make out the man's features, but he did notice that the man was carrying a gun in his hand. A pistol. And as he got closer, he saw that the pistol had a silencer attached to it.

At this point, Homero decided to run into the small barn and lock the door. He keeps his machete in there, and he quickly got it down and hunkered against the back wall. He was trying to decide if it would be a good idea to clamber up into the loft in case the man started to shoot through the door when he heard the man calling out "hellooo!" He thought the voice sounded familiar, so he opened the door and there was our neighbor standing there. He had holstered his gun.

Our neighbor wanted to let us know that there was a coyote in the blackberry bushes right along our fence line. He had seen it run in there just as Homero was coming out to the barn, and hadn't we better lock up the chickens and goats tonight? He himself was going to try to kill it - he has chickens, too - but he wanted us to know, just in case.

Homero thanked him for his concern. He's a good neighbor, really, and I guess it just never occurred to him what he might look like coming over the fence with a gun in his hand.

Bye Bye Birdies

                                                                  King of the Coop

We discovered, at last, what is happening to all the eggs. Muriel, one of the old hens we got for free way back when we were first acquiring animals, has been eating them. I occasionally found an egg with yolk all over it, clearly indicating that another egg had been next to it and no longer was, but I assumed that my hens were laying thin shelled eggs and some of them were breaking.I added oyster shell to their diet.  After several weeks of gathering only a few, sticky eggs a day, I cam to the conclusion that somebody was deliberately breaking and eating eggs, but I didn't know who. 

It may seem like a simple puzzle, but when you have thirty chickens and no way to separate them, it is pretty much impossible to find out who is eating eggs unless you catch them in the act. Yesterday, that's what happened. We were all outside and I collected two eggs and gave them to Homero to hold, since I didn't have any pockets. Busy with something else, he laid them on the ground. Quick as only an egg-stealing chicken can be, Muriel came running over and before Homero could even stoop to retrieve the eggs, pock, pock! She had broken them both open. 

Previously, I had told Homero that if he ever saw who was breaking eggs, he should just pick that chicken up and wring it's neck then and there. There's no cure for egg-thievery. But the fact that it was Muriel presented a problem. We had originally taken in Agnes and Muriel with the promise that we were providing them a home for their old age, and that we wouldn't kill them. While I never heard from the previous owners again, and I'm pretty sure they'd never know, still, a promise is a promise. Moreover, Agnes and Muriel are the only chickens with names. We've been explaining to the children that some animals have names and we don't kill them, and other animals do not have names, and that means they are food and we will kill them and eat them. I didn't want to violate the name-rule and confuse the kids. What to do?

Rowan told me to put her on Craig's List. Ridiculous. Who wants and old hen that breaks eggs? Well, couldn't hurt to try. I penned an ad that had the headline "Save a Chicken's life!" and went on to read: "We have an elderly hen who not only has stopped laying eggs, but who also breaks and eats other hen's eggs. I was about to kill her when my kids convinced me that some generous soul out there wants to provide her with a home. Her name is Muriel. She's smart and friendly, so she might make a good pet. Good deed anyone?"

Well, I'd never have believed it but Rowan was right. Three different people called and I gave her - and her longtime companion Agnes, who hasn't broken any eggs, but who would be lonely without Muriel - away to the first person who showed up with a cat carrier.

Now we'll see how many eggs I get today.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Fence While the Sun Shines

                                                          A Long Weekend's Work

One of the larger projects on the list of Things That Need To Happen is cross-fencing. Currently, I have only one paddock; a two acre enclosure in which everybody lives: chickens, goats, and alpacas. It's big enough for everyone, but without separate enclosures, I can't separate kids from mama goats, to get more milk. I can't keep a buck. And most importantly, I can't rotate pastures. My big field produces plenty of roughage for the animals I keep on it, but it would eventually get tired. And unless I have somewhere else to put the animals for a month or so, I can't plant grass and try to improve the pasture. So yesterday I went and bought enough material to make two new enclosures, one about 100' x 150', and the other about 50' x 100'.  The price of fencing materials has nearly doubled since last fall. I don't eve want to write what I spent, in case my husband reads this blog and finds out! Oh well, at least labor is free.

                                                 Happy Goats in the New Pasture